- Cullman, Alabama


January 10, 2013

NBC's '1600 Penn' has a flailing first family


Becca confesses this to her stepmother, unfortunately while both women are wearing live microphones during a break in a TV interview. A full-on Washington scandal erupts as White House reporters pelt the press secretary (Andre Holland) with questions about the baby-daddy: "Is it the physical therapist from Bethesda?" asks one. "Is it the puppeteer from Wichita Falls?" asks another. ("Reporters are the worst people in the world" is the Gilchrist family mantra.)

A livid President Gilchrist summons his intelligence command and quickly locates the young man in question, D.B. (Robbie Amell), working at an Old Navy in a mall in Friendship Heights. (Um, is there an Old Navy in a mall in Friendship Heights? This reminds me of the time "The West Wing's" C.J. Cregg ran off to some mythical downtown Barney's — not the Barney's Co-Op, mind you — to fetch a last-minute frock. Hollywood has no clue how underserved Washington's retail addicts really are.)

Secret Service agents are dispatched to haul the unwitting D.B. in for a presidential grilling. Only then does "1600 Penn" start to show signs of a "Modern Family"-like spark, as Amell's version of a well-meaning half-wit both complements and outshines Gad's Skip. "Can you take me back to the mall?" D.B. asks. "Not the Lincoln Memorial-y one, the real one." Watching him, you'll rightly wonder if maybe there could be a decent sitcom here after all, so long as the writers continue pushing toward absurdity.

In another time — perhaps those fallow years after "The West Wing" — "1600 Penn" would have been a pleasant respite, if only because so many Beltway-centric shows turn out to be duds. But we're in a kind of golden zone right now, with serious fare (Showtime's "Homeland") mixed in with the laughably melodramatic (ABC's "Scandal") and the earnestly soapy (USA's miniseries "Political Animals"). It finally feels like Washington — or someone's warped notion of it — belongs on scripted television.

As for comedy, it would be difficult to outdo HBO's wickedly hilarious "Veep," which makes "1600 Penn" look like a half-finished improv sketch. But give a few points to "1600 Penn" for trying.

"1600 Penn" airs Thursday at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

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